Art Director (Trade & Consumer) Capstone
Tell us how you got started in publishing and how you arrived at your current position, Art Director (Trade and consumer) for Capstone.
Shortly after graduating from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, I took a job as an ad designer for a larger newspaper in Rochester, MN. I often say that, technically, this was my start in publishing. I worked in the evenings, designing everything from tiny farm auction ads to large, splashy car dealership ads. And, while it wasn’t always glamorous work, I loved it. Consequently, this job taught me a great deal about desktop publishing as well as working in an extremely deadline-oriented setting. After about five years there, a coworker serendipitously referred me to a job posting for a graphic designer at Capstone Press, a publisher of nonfiction for school libraries. Since I’d been freelancing for authors on the side while working at the newspaper, I’d built a small portfolio of children’s illustration work and decided to give it a shot. I was offered the job two weeks later. Upon arriving at Capstone Press, I had the fantastic opportunity to get in on the ground floor of their new Graphic Library brand—the company’s first foray into graphic novels. I helped develop the first 32 titles or so, including the superhero scientist character Max Axiom, who narrates the Graphic Science sub-series. I was promoted to Senior Designer and remained with Capstone Press for about 4 years. At the same time, the company was starting up a fiction imprint called Stone Arch Books, which deals heavily in graphic novels and other middle-grade fiction for reluctant readers. It was an instant success, and I was later brought on as an art director, shifting to our Minneapolis offices from our headquarters in Mankato, MN. Once again, I was afforded a great opportunity to lead and develop another new initiative: our just-signed license with DC Comics/WB Consumer Products, creating chapter books based on Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and more. I also developed and designed the popular DC Super-Pets line as part of this new licensing deal. Now in my 12th year with Capstone (now our master brand), I’m Art Director for the trade & consumer arm of our company, directing and designing everything from picture books to middle grade chapter book series. It’s a privilege to work for a growing and innovative publisher based in my home state. I’m very grateful.
What does your role broadly entail and how is the art department at Capstone structured?
The awesome thing about my role is that I’m able to exist in the "trenches” with my fellow designers; that is, I direct their projects, but I also design my own projects alongside them. So, on any given day, I’m art directing five different illustrators from around the world, directing cover layouts from a team of designers in house, personally designing a handful of picture books, and juggling a mixed bag of marketing projects—everything from catalog covers and spreads to posters and book trailers. It’s always exciting and always challenging. In terms of structure, we have a very talented creative director/senior art director duo at the top who manage the visual aesthetic and details of our trade list, while myself and several senior and junior designers handle the majority of the hands-on design and layout. I’m very proud to be a part of this small yet extremely talented team. They’re practically family to me and inspire me endlessly.
How would you articulate the type of illustrations Capstone is interested in commissioning?
As an art director, I’m always looking for consistent and confidently executed illustration. Since Capstone publishes such a wide range of books in so many different styles (it’s hard to pinpoint one type of illustration I’m looking for), I often say that I’m more interested in the professional qualities my illustrators possess. We are on a very strict production schedule at all times—can you meet our deadlines and at the same time exceed our expectations with regard to quality? Are you a good communicator and will you update me on your progress without me prompting you to do so? Do you take art direction well, while at the same time asserting your own ideas in a creative discussion? This is what really matters to me and what will ultimately result in an illustrator getting called for another job.
You have art directed many successful children's books. Which 3 projects would you select to share with our audience?
I’ve been very fortunate to personally develop several of Capstone’s proprietary brands, but the one I’m most proud of is Hello Genius, which was Capstone’s first foray into the board book space. It’s been a big success for us, especially the “flagship” title, Duck Goes Potty. I’m also proud to say that this book truly inspired my son to start potty training…!
Growing up a hardcore comic book fan, I was ecstatic when DC Comics approached us to develop a series of 24 chapter books based on the pets of DC Super Heroes. It was a total dream come true, considering we were given the authority to help them develop all-new characters to supplement the already robust collection of pets culled from the DC canon. But the biggest thrill was working side-by-side with comics illustrator Art Baltazar, famous at the time for his run on Tiny Titans (and now busy on Itty Bitty Hellboy)—he’s perhaps the sweetest and most hardworking gentleman in the industry. A class act.
The idea for this book (and its sequels Goodnight Football and Goodnight Hockey) came out of a meeting with our licensors at Sports Illustrated Kids, and the rest is history—it’s been one of our best selling picture books. The illustrator, Christina Forshay, turned out to be a bigger baseball fan than even me (she roots for the Angels, I root for the Twins), so our collaboration on this title was super enjoyable and resulted in a very warm and nostalgic take on the ballpark experience.
As an illustrator yourself, how does that influence / affect the way you operate as an art director?
Ultimately, I feel that being an illustrator myself instills a good sense of empathy in me toward the illustrators I work with. From personal experience, I know how long one illustration can take, let alone enough illustrations to populate an entire 32-page picture book, for example. I realize the amount of pressure and expectation I’m placing on my illustrators; and so, while I do need to enforce deadlines, I also need to put myself in their shoes at times and coach them along as constructively as I can when times get tough. Life happens. Perfectionism happens. Lapses in time management happen. My job is to see to it that an illustrator creates their best work—in the most respectful and encouraging way possible. That’s what I would expect from an art director. It’s sort of a Golden Rule-type philosophy toward art direction.
When looking to appeal to Capstone's list, what things should an illustrator include in their Childrensillustrators.com portfolio and what should they avoid?
Post your most recent work, keep it consistent, and tell a story. I’ve seen portfolios that are chock full of character stills and spot art. While there is nothing wrong with these artforms (and they are often indicative of extremely talented illustrators), I’m more interested in pieces that evoke a feeling of place and time, that convey storytelling abilities. I also want to see what an illustrator is doing now, and that they’re doing it consistently. I think that often times illustrators feel the need to include much older work in order to show progress, but to me it can result in a cluttered and inconsistent portfolio. I just want to see that you’re an awesome illustrator right now!
Who do you most admire in the publishing industry?
I’m a big fan of Chronicle Books. Their brand, mission, sense of style, and consistently imaginative design is so inspirational to me. I think that a big part of their brand is their people - every time I encounter their booth at a trade show, their staff is warm, exuberant, and genuinely passionate about publishing. Every bit of that enthusiasm oozes from their product. I feel Capstone captures a similar type of imagination and excitement, which is why we’ve grown and had so much success in our 25 years as a publisher.
What's the most fun you've had on a project and equally, what's been your greatest challenge?
Last year, I had the opportunity to collaborate with a good friend and author on a series of board books that you can wear. It all started with Book-O-Beards and blossomed into a series that included books of teeth, hats, and masks. While mask board books exist elsewhere in publishing, I believe we were the first to feature mask books below the nose and above the eyes. The Wearable Books series was the most creative and unfettered project I’ve ever had the privilege to work on. From start to finish, Capstone was really on board with our ideas and direction for the series, and it resulted in a truly unique product for the company. Best of all, it was an opportunity for me to get back to full-on illustration, which I had really missed.
As far as my most challenging project, I’d have to say picture books as a whole. On the surface they may seem simple, but from a design perspective, so much goes into their creation, from storyboards and text placement to layout and packaging. I think that’s what makes them so special: the level of thought, effort and creativity involved at both the design and editorial level.